The fear that has caused the extraordinary rise in spending on security around the world, but particularly in the USA, the fear that allowed the US Government under President George W. Bush to bring in the awful attack on personal freedom and privacy known as The Patriot Act, the fear that allows the NRA to confound all critics and statistics in its determination to have as few controls over gun ownership as possible, cannot simply be the result of the infamous 9/11 attack in 2001.
It isn’t only about the fear of terrorism.
For one thing, while many will ignore the statistics (and in any case they become irrelevant once you are the victim), it has been said that the odds of your getting killed by a terrorist are roughly equivalent to the odds on your winning a lottery jackpot three times in your lifetime. Meanwhile, the odds on getting killed in a road accident in America are thousands of times higher, higher even than getting shot by an assailant (criminal or cop). The odds on getting struck by lightning or crushed by falling furniture are higher than death by terrorist. You are four thousand times more likely to drink yourself to death, five thousand times more likely to die through a medical error. And so on and on.
But should you fall its victim, terrorism has the distinction of being aimed at you for no personal reason at all and without any fault on your part. This makes death at the hands of terrorists somehow worse than any of the possible accidental deaths we all risk every day. This is an understandable fear, but it has been massaged and encouraged beyond its natural potency.
It has been a policy of the US Government under both presidents since that fateful autumn day to maintain a sense of fear in the American populace, it has been used to create the permanent war that George Orwell predicted would become a weapon of government, to justify the so-called war on terrorism and the enforcement and wide use of the powers given by the Patriot Act, and the media have been eager supporters of this fear mongering. TV is filled with police shows, the news is all about the worst of America, and movies like American Sniper build on the idea that every citizen of the countries that the US has invaded are dangerous. The outside world is dangerous.
The Republican candidate Donald Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from entering America, such is the fear he knows he can pander to (I don’t think he is a fool, far from it, a cynic of course, and an opportunist, but not a fool, so I doubt he genuinely shares the fear he likes to stoke). He says he wants to Make America Great Again, but offers to do so by shutting all its doors and hiding behind them, quivering like someone trapped in one of those ridiculous panic rooms.
But it might be timely to recall that the worst terrorist attack in America before 9/11 was the bombing of the FBI Headquarters in Oklahoma City by a white supremacist American citizen, Timothy McVeigh. 168 people, men women and children, died, hundreds more were injured.
Back in the late 1990s I met a Texan, a charming man, who described his arsenal to me, a variety of handguns, assault weapons, machine guns, sub-machine guns, grenades, the list was mind-boggling. He told me he kept it, like McVeigh, as a defence against the FBI in particular, and the Federal Government generally. Presumably he still keeps the arsenal (if no one has shot him yet or he has shot himself by accident – another major cause of shooting deaths in America), but now probably defends his decision by saying it is a defence against terrorists. I have heard Americans claim they keep guns as a defence against invasion. Apparently the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are not buffer enough. Maybe they expect the Mexicans to invade. Or the Canadians (but they never would surely?).
I’m getting flippant. There is a much older and deeper cause for American fear than any of the events of the past twenty or thirty years. In the Great Plains states, the descendants of the original settlers are only a couple of hundred years at most since their ancestor pioneers were staking out their homesteads and defending their families against hostile native Americans and marauding outlaws, not to mention wild cats, snakes, and other dangerous animals. A gun was a necessity for survival, even without the attacks of human enemies. I live in Ireland and I have friends who still keep their grandfather’s gun, after the dangerous days of the civil war of 1922-24. Such memories die hard.
I don’t buy the Second Amendment argument, either as a political argument (it was about a civil militia armed with muskets, not individuals with assault weapons), or as the primary reason why Americans want to hang on to their guns. It is a much more primitive thing. You only have to watch a 1950s Western movie to see that the gun, the idea of killing, was seen as a legitimate and effective way of dealing with aggressors and as the rightful defence of the individual against a hostile world. As Gene Hackman, playing Wyatt Earp’s father in Kevin Costner’s movie, says “There’s only family. The rest are strangers”. Meaning dangerous and not to be trusted. Gun ownership is not only a right, it is a personal safety issue. One can only say it must be awful to have so little trust in your fellow citizens. We have gun crime here in Ireland, of course, but it doesn’t feel imminent.
By contrast, the British have not had a civil war for almost five hundred years, and if we had kept our ancestors weapons they’d only be useless curios by now. And I’ve never met a Frenchman who fears he might be dragged off to the guillotine. It is the fear of strangers that seems to lie at the heart of why Americans are so scared. The outside world, even the world beyond their home state. Only 15% of Americans have passports, and 30% of Americans have never left their state.
Another factor in what drives middle America’s fear might be the understandable insecurity and fear of those first pioneers, the homesteaders of the 1870s and 80s, attitudes since handed down generation to generation, harsh religion, harsh judgements, tough attitudes. They were largely the poor and dispossessed fleeing the cruelties and deprivations of Europe. Education was rare among such people, and these days their descendants are often openly proud to be ignorant, distrustful of scholarship and sophisticated critical thinking, the wily ways of “city slickers”.
Fear, ignorance, and suspicion make easy bedfellows for violence and a shoot first, don’t ask questions approach to the outside world. I can remember when we loved everything that came out of America, from Rock n Roll to chewing gum to dishwashers, and big flashy cars. We admired their sense of honour and decency. Where has that gone? I have loads of American friends who are as horrified by the political changes of this century as I am, but they are, or so it seems, an increasingly isolated minority.
It’s a sad fact that America has lost the love and respect of most of the world. They deserve better. But it’s hard to love and respect a paranoid scaredy-cat.